Sunday, May 24, 2009

Offbeat interview with James "Sugar Boy" Crawford

The indispensable New Orleans Magazine OFFBEAT interviews James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, most famous for the song "Jock-a-mo," later to be known as "Iko Iko." I believe this is from 2002.


BackTalk with James “Sugar Boy” Crawford

By Jeff Hannusch

Whether you call it “Jock-A-Mo” or Chock-A-Mo” or “Iko-Iko,” it’s one of the greatest of all New Orleans Carnival songs. James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who recorded the original version in 1953, rarely performs these days, preferring to bask in the glow of his incandescent grandson Davell. “The only place I sing is in church now,” Sugar Boy confesses.

“Jock-A-Mo,” one of a select handful of truly memorable Carnival songs, has had multiple personalities over the decades. Originally recorded in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, it was turned into an international hit over a decade later by a trio of New Orleans teenagers, the Dixie Cups, as “Iko Iko.” Since then, the song has been covered by Willie DeVille, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Bell Stars [their version was in the Academy Award-winning movie Rain Man] and Cyndi Lauper, although none have approached the magnificence of Sugar Boy’s original.

An early shaper of New Orleans rhythm and blues, Sugar Boy was a master of the B-flat ballad, as demonstrated on “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do,” “Early Sunday Morning,” and “No One To Love Me.” Sugar Boy maintained a tremendous regional following for over a decade, and his popularity extended well beyond “Jock-A-Mo.”

Born October 12, 1934, he attained the “Sugar Boy” moniker because he was a sweet kid. He learned to play piano at a neighbor’s house, and at Booker T. Washington High School, played the trombone and formed a band. The group caught a break in 1952, when Doctor Daddy-O invited them to perform on his Saturday morning radio show. The group didn’t have a name until Daddy-O dubbed them, “The Chapaka Shawee” (Creole for “We Aren’t Raccoons”), the title of an instrumental the group played. The popularity from their radio appearance led to a regular work at the Shadowland and the Pentagon clubs, as well as an Aladdin Records contract. Under the guise of “The Sha-Wez,” the Aladdin record was a flop, but the group’s itinerary steadily grew. The following year, Chess Records president Leonard Chess was in town promoting some new releases when he heard Sugar Boy and the group rehearse at WMRY. In exchange for five dollars, Chess taped an audition demo and left town. A month later, disc jockey Ernie the Whip called the group and said he had a surprise for them. When the band gathered at WMRY, Ernie presented them with a 78 r.p.m. recording of “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do,” credited to “Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters.” [Chess couldn’t use the name Sha-Wez as the group was still under contract to Aladdin.] Chess released the primitive audition and it did well locally. Sugar Boy then signed a contract and Chess directed him to the J&M Studio for more recordings. With guitarist Snooks Eaglin in support, Crawford waxed “Jock-A-Mo,” the song he will forever be known for.

Sugar Boy had one other release on Checker—“I Bowed On My Knees”—before moving to Baton Rouge, where he and the Cane Cutters were installed as the house band at the Carousel Club. Sugar Boy returned to New Orleans in 1956, and signed with Imperial Records where he waxed several memorable releases including “Morning Star,” “You Gave Me Love,” and the brilliant “She’s Gotta Wobble (When She Walks).” After his Imperial tenure, Sugar Boy had singles on Montel and Ace before his career, and nearly his life, came to an abrupt halt.

Sugar Boy and his band were on their way to a job in North Louisiana in 1963, when state troopers pulled him over for the then-crime of being a black man in a flashy brand-new automobile. One of Louisiana’s “finest” took exception to Sugar Boy’s attitude and proceeded to pistol-whip him on the side of the road. Sugar Boy spent three weeks in the hospital and was incapacitated for two years. He attempted a comeback, but after 1969, he confined his singing to church. He then went to trade school and learned to become a building engineer. For several years, Sugar Boy maintained the Masonic building on St. Charles Avenue (where OffBeat’s previous office was located). Luckily for Sugar Boy, over the years the royalties generated from “Jock-A-Mo” continued to accumulate, as the song was covered by more and more artists. Today, Sugar Boy owns his own company—C&C Locksmiths—where he spends his time practicing his trade and following the career of his talented grandson, Davell. OffBeat recently chatted with Sugar Boy Crawford after he duplicated a few keys for us.

Why were so many of your early records in the key of B-flat?

That wasn’t a comfortable key for me to sing in, but it was a heavy key for ballads. Back then we were a bunch of kids and just learning to play. We weren’t very advanced musically, so we could only play certain arrangements in certain keys like B-flat. Later on, I recorded in E, G and E-flat—those were easier keys to sing in.

Who did you listen to back then?

I used to love Roscoe Gordon’s “Saddled the Cow and Milked the Horse.” That was my favorite record.

Where in New Orleans did you grow up?

I lived at 1309 La Salle Street. We called the neighborhood “The Bucket of Blood,” because there were a lot of barrooms around there. It seemed like every Saturday night there was a cutting or shooting there. It was also a neighborhood where there were a lot of Indian tribes.

Where was The Battlefield?

That was an area bordered by Claiborne, Galvez, Tulane and Perdido Streets. That’s where the Indians met on Mardi Gras day. I wasn’t too keen on going down there, because when they met, there would be a lot of cutting and shooting going on.

Did you ever mask as an Indian?

Oh no, I never did go out for that kind of thing. You might not believe it because of “Jock-A-Mo,” but I was afraid of the Indians.

How did you construct “Jock-A-Mo?”

It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. “Iko Iko” was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. “Jock-A-Mo” was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” That was a phrase everybody in New Orleans used. Lloyd Price just added music to it and it became a hit. I was just trying to write a catchy song. Leonard Chess [president of Chess & Checker Records, then Sugar Boy’s label] contacted me and arranged for me to go to Cosimo’s [J & M Studio] and record it. That was in [November] 1953.

Listeners wonder what “Jock-A-Mo” means. Some music scholars say it translates in Mardi Gras Indian lingo as “Kiss my ass,” and I’ve read where some think Jock-A-Mo was a court jester. What does it mean?

I really don’t know (laughs). It wasn’t my idea to call the song “Jock-A-Mo”—Leonard Chess did that. If you listen to the song, I’m singing C-H-O-C-K, as in Chockamo. Not J-O-C-K, as in Jock-A-Mo. When Leonard listened to the session in Chicago, he thought I said “Jock-A-Mo.” When I saw the record for the first time I said, “That’s not the title, it’s ‘Chock-A-Mo’.”

How did Snooks wind up playing on it?

I think it was as a favor to [disc jockey] Dr. Daddy-O. Daddy-O knew a lot musicians and he knew Leonard Chess. Snooks never was in my band. The day I recorded “Jock-A-Mo,” there were about four or five other guys recording too including Snooks and Slim Sanders [their sides weren’t issued until 1976]. We didn’t have much time to record, but we got “Jock-A-Mo” on the third take.

How did the record do when it was released?

It did pretty good around Mardi Gras [in 1954] but after that, people forgot about it. I did go to New York though because I remember when I got on stage there they had to stop serving alcohol because I was underage. Nobody paid attention to the song though for over ten years.

Were there any other popular Carnival songs before “Jock-A-Mo?”

Professor Longhair’s “Go To the Mardi Gras,” but it wasn’t the version you hear now [the 1959 Ron recording]. He’d recorded it [on Atlantic and Star Talent] long before I started playing music. After “Jock-A-Mo” came “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Carnival Time,” “Big Chief” and “Second Line,” so I guess I had one of the first Carnival records.

Did “Jock-A-Mo” get you more bookings?

At the time my band was already working every night of the week so we couldn’t handle any more work.

Along with Fats Domino, weren’t you one of the first New Orleans R&B artists to develop a white audience.

At one point, 99 percent of our work was at white clubs. That started from playing for the fraternities at LSU. Somebody from the Carousel Club heard us and wanted to hire us. That was a white club across the river from Baton Rouge. We stayed there two years. The Carousel attracted a sophisticated crowd. At the beginning of the night we played “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Unchained Melody” and “Danny Boy,” but once the crowd got a little rowdy as the night went on, we could loosen up and play the harder stuff.

After the Carousel you came back to New Orleans and recorded for Imperial?

Dave Bartholomew heard us and said he’d record me once my Chess contract was up. The only thing was that Imperial was a company that only released your records in the area where you lived to see how they’d do. If they didn’t do very well, they wouldn’t release your records nationally. My [Imperial] records stayed local, so I only did a few for them.

Then you did “Danny Boy” for Montel?

Sam Montalbano [Montel’s owner] heard me do the song at the Carousel and asked me to record it. He recorded the background music in Baton Rouge—he had some guys from LSU play on it [likely John Fred & the Playboys]. He sent the tape to Cosimo’s and I overdubbed the vocals. Then I went with Johnny Vincent [Ace Records]. Mac Rebennack had something to do with that. He wrote “Have A Little Mercy” which I did.

Who were the Sugar Lumps?

They were Linda and Dianne DeGrue, Irene Johnson, and Mary Kelly. They were singing with Wardell Quezergue as the Little Raelettes when I hired them [in 1960]. The first place we worked was the Safari on Chef Highway. When we got on the bandstand, “Batman” [saxophonist LeRoy Rankin] announced us as “Sugar Boy & the Sugar Lumps.” They made a record for Don Robey [Peacock] while I was in the hospital.

Considering the circumstances of your injury I’ve always been amazed that you’ve never shown any bitterness about what happened.

I’ll tell you what, you’re going to be at a disadvantage if you spend your life dwelling on something like that. I’ve just tried to forget it and write it off as one of the mysteries of life.

You did make a brief comeback though.

Yeah, but I never felt like I had recuperated to the point where I was before I was injured, so I looked for other things to do with my life.

Do you still get requests to perform?

I do but that’s pretty much out of the question. The only place I sing is in church now.

I have seen you perform with Davell at the Jazz Festival though and you were great.

Well Davell talked me into that. I did it because he’s my grandson.

Are you close to Davell and give him advice?

Oh we talk all the time. But I can’t give him any advice other than “Stay out of trouble.” I never played as well as he can, so what can’t I tell him about music? He could play better than I ever could at the age of 12.

Were you surprised when you heard the Dixie Cups cover “Jock-A-Mo” [as “Iko Iko”]?

Not so much that they covered it, but I was by how well it did. It went all over the world and was Number One in a lot of places [“Iko Iko” reached Number 20 on the Billboard pop chart in 1965]. At the time, Joe Jones [the Dixie Cups’ producer] said he was going to cover one of my songs and I’d get royalties, but that never happened.

You get writer’s royalties though don’t you?

Eventually—after many years and court battles. Chess [who placed “Jock-A-Mo” with BMI] sold his publishing to the Goodman brothers. The Goodmans sued for publishing royalties and they’re responsible for me finally getting my just dues. But truthfully, I don’t even know if I really am getting my just dues. I just figure 50 percent of something is better than 100 of nothing.

Do you run into many people from your days as an entertainer?

All the time. The other day I was going to the drug store and ran into Aaron Neville. He was taking his dog to the vet and we talked a long time.

When you’re doing a service call, do people ever associate you with your music?

Sometimes. The other day I was changing a lock at a lady’s house and she found out who I was. She wanted me to sing while I was trying to work. That made me laugh.

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